A couple of months ago I reported on a public discussion on global warming and was somewhat saddened and surprised to later learn not all of the discussion’s participants welcomed my attendance.
Every day reporters sift through piles of press releases clamoring for their attention. And in the clamor the voices of industry, officials and other segments of society backed by public relations staff sometimes drown out the unorchestrated voice of the community.
So I relish the opportunity to report on the unedited views of local community members at grass roots events such as the global warming discussion I attended.
However, some of the event’s participants said they worried my presence might hamper the discussion by discouraging participants from speaking freely. They said participants might edit their comments, or worse, not speak at all if they thought the media might be present.
This is most unfortunate. I would hope local community members would be pleased the media is interested in sharing their thoughts and ideas, and not just those of “official sources.” The media is a valuable tool in shaping public opinion and in influencing the decisions of public policy makers. That’s why so many people have been hired to influence it.
According to a 1995 book by the Center for Media and Democracy’s John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, public relations practitioners outnumbered journalists in the U.S. 150,000 to 130,000. And I would be surprised if the disparity has not grown even larger since.
As a journalist, I believe strongly in the First Amendment freedoms of the press and individuals. However, I have read many journalist blogs and have heard a number of journalists say press freedoms should coexist with press responsibilities.
I, and I believe many other journalists, feel a responsibility to promote healthy democratic ideals by responding to the public concerns and keeping our respective communities well informed and thereby enable citizens to make informed voting decisions. And although I believe few journalists would support any proposal to make such responsibilities a legal prerequisite to First Amendment press freedoms, I have not yet met a journalist who has rejected this lofty role for the media.
And journalists who are more interested in money than serving their community are apt to leave the journalism industry for the more lucrative public relations industry.
Generally, the sources that flood my desk and inbox with press releases do not need me to amplify their already loud public megaphones. And although frequently more important, the ideas and thoughts of the general public receive less than their fair share of the media’s attention.
When the media report on an agenda-free public forum, such as the global warming discussion I attended, community members have a valuable opportunity to amplify their concerns and grab the attention of public officials who are then more likely to respond.
It is my hope that the more journalists pay attention and respond to the views and concerns of their communities the more people will realize they can used journalists to serve their community’s needs and become less guarded about expressing themselves before the media.
Rather than keeping their opinions and concerns to themselves, active citizens resist political apathy by boldly sharing their views and knowledge and do not allow the community’s most powerful voices take over the public discourse that shapes our democracy.
Public forums forge strong links in the chain of discourse that makes democracy work. Encouraging the media to participate in those forums makes those links stronger still.
Patrice Kohl is a reporter for the Clarion.
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